Wednesday, May 26, 2010

What We See

My blogs of late have told stories of walkability and overcoming complexity - ingredients of the safe and vital neighborhood. There are more and I've been reading about them in a great new book: What We See: Advancing the Observations of Jane Jacobs (New Village Press, 2010). Click here for the website.

I'm not usually a fan of non-fiction anthologies which, having authored a crime prevention anthology myself, is probably just evidence of my own inconsistency. Regardless, What We See is an exception to my rule. It is a fabulous read!

Over 30 writers in this engaging book tell real-life stories about that most crucial skill at the root of Jacobs' insights - how to look carefully and see clearly the ingredients that make great neighborhoods. Authors include noted PBS journalist Ray Suarez, former San Francisco chief planner Alan Jacobs, urban design guru Claire Cooper-Marcus, and former Toronto mayor, David Crombie.

One of my favorite chapters includes Danish planner Jan Gehl's tribute called "For You Jane". Says Gehl:

A strong tailwind towards better cities has definitely started blowing. It is now known that looking carefully after pedestrians and the bicycles provides an opportunity to address [how to] make cities more lively, safe, sustainable, and healthy. More eyes steadily on the street. People are universally the greatest urban attraction. These are some obvious virtues of a city planning policy inspired by your principles…Thank you, Jane.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Overcoming complexity - A Philadelphia story

Simple solutions to complex problems

CPTED prevents crime by designing defensible space into places - what 1st Generation CPTED calls territoriality. It is a strategy that doesn't always happen with design. It needs help.

Walkability was my theme this past week. A walkable street helps encourage neighborhood vitality, which in turn helps folks take ownership of their public domain. Walkability is the first step towards territoriality and defensible space.

This week I was reminded of another by one of my Philadelphia students in a SafeGrowth course run by the Community Safety Initiatives folks at LISC; The revitalization of public space by citizens.

Betsy Casanas sent me the following story regarding how to do what 2nd Generation CPTED calls culture-making:

Our project is called "Reclaiming Vital Spaces" We have done so much already in the past couple of weeks. We've built 8 new beds with a few guys in an adjudicated program, We've done a workshop with one of the neighboring schools and created permanent art work for the fence with a 3rd grade class. We've just received 2 benches from a neighboring center who is interested in having their kids participate in the garden.

We have organized a group of neighbors to take over several of the boxes and grow there own food. In the coming weeks we will build a steel sculptural fence because we can't afford to buy a real fence. I think this one will be much more amazing anyways. We did get a small grant that will help us buy a tool shed, tools, benches and picnic tables. 

Semilla Arts organizers for social change

How, one wonders, does such a SafeGrowth-like approach ever start in the first place? Betsy filled me in:

As a reaction to the social conditions in North Philadelphia in 2007 artists Betsy Casanas and Pedro Ospina co-founded “Semilla (seed) Arts Initiative” a grassroots initiative that uses art as a catalyst for social change and artistic collaborations as a means of empowering individuals and communities. Semilla’s goal is to unite the community by actively involving them in the process of physically transforming their own neighborhood, exposing them to solutions and possibilities. 

I'm very impressed by some of the things I've seen in Philly during this SafeGrowth project. I can hardly wait to see what they come up with next month when we return.

Most encouraging of all is Betsy's conclusion:

The vitality of any community can be found in the strengths and stability of its members and their ability to overcome the complexity of today.

Yes! In a nutshell, that's it!

If walkability is the first step to safety, overcoming complexity is the second.

Community vitality is found in the ability of it's members to overcome the complexity of today!

Thank you to Betsy, Pedro, and their dedicated kin for reminding us where to find yet another key to open safe places.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Walkability - the first step to safety

Discovering fun things during Jane's Walks

I spent a few days this week enjoying the fascinating streets of Toronto where dozens of neighborhoods flourish in ethnic and class diversity. Treed sitting areas, fruit and vegetable stands and street performers of all kinds; thriving streets in famed Jane Jacobs' hometown (at least in the non-suburban, bicycle friendly neighborhoods between the expressways).

Every first weekend in May the Jane's Walk event shows up in streets across the city. Starting in 2007 in Toronto, the Jane's Walk phenomenon has gone viral. Over 400 Jane's Walks now occur in 70 cities around the world. They are named after Jacobs, who was the CPTED pioneer before CPTED existed (she would probably not acknowledge that). Jacobs believed that the best way to get to know a neighborhood is on foot. I think she was right.

Check out how walkable your own neighborhood is using the Walk Score. The Walk Score website allows you to type in your own home address (no spams result later on) and find out how your own neighborhood walkability compares to other cities around the world.

You can rate walkability to amenities such as grocery and hardware stores, restaurants and coffee shops, transit stops, schools, drug stores, parks and other destinations one might actually want to walk to.

I typed in my former addresses to see if it worked. For example homes in Port Moody, British Columbia and Tallahassee, Florida both rated a Car Dependent 15 - a very poor walkability score. It's true that the Tallahassee neighborhood offered nothing of walkable interest though the Port Moody home did have a beautiful bike trail near the ocean. Still, I think they both deserved low walkability scores.

My current home in a small town in Washington State scored a Very Walkable 75 which I figure is about right. It is across from a seaside park, near a bus stop and less than a 15 minute walk to restaurants, library, drug stores, and coffee shops. In fact, all but one amenity here is less than a mile away. No wonder it scores high.

Walkability alone doesn't determine safety. The website rated some highly walkable neighborhoods very accurately, such as obvious choices like Soho and Greenwich Village in New York (same as when Jacob's lived there), the University District in Seattle, and downtown Portland. Unfortunately it rated others less accurately. While Seattle's Pioneer Square scores high, my own SafeGrowth students discovered walkability there is safe in daytime but far less so in nighttime. There are other questionable choices on the walkable cities list.

Obviously, walkability alone does not determine safety. It is, however, an excellent place to start creating it.

Click here for and rate your home on The Walk Score website.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Re-locating crime?

Moving or removing crime from Memphis public housing?

United Airlines is moving to downtown Chicago! Or so we're told in this week's issue of Harvard Business Review. Walgreens too, we're told, is rediscovering downtown. Are Corporate HQ's leading a suburban exodus back to the same city centers that middle and wealthy classes once abandoned to gangs, drugs and crime?

Another sign of change shows up in the Next American City magazine. Apparently Cleveland is re-imagining itself from the ground up. In that case it is the re-use of downtown vacant land - not corporate moves - leading the charge.

Could Richard Florida's predictions about new urban geographies be coming true as we emerge from the Great Recession? Are we really seeing the era when Florida's "creative economy"is extended to blue collar workers?


Predictions like this echo the 1990s when Boston's Big Dig and urban garden programs heralded inner city gentrification. Of course re-locating downtown poor to the suburbs in favor of a rich, empty-nester class does little more than displace the poor to the suburbs.

Evidence for the re-locating phenomena is well documented by University of Memphis researchers Richard Betts and Phyllis Janikowski. Check out their American Murder Mystery story in The Atlantic.

As Florida says, "what drives a countries economic growth isn't factories or industries. It's people and creative neighborhoods in cities." I think it's the same for safe cities.

We don't want simply to shift urban geographies. We want to improve them.